Biden Expresses “Moral Outrage,” Not “Gaffe,” at Putin’s War Crimes in Ukraine
How unfortunate — absurd, really — that President Joe Biden is taking extreme heat for making a moral point about Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine — the horrific war crimes occurring before, during, and since the speech Mr. Biden gave in Warsaw, wrapping up an emergency meeting of NATO and the European Union on Ukraine.
Yes, the President expressed his moral outrage inelegantly — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” — a nine-word departure, at the very end, from his prepared speech which, otherwise, got high marks for framing the struggle of our times, joined in Ukraine, of democracy versus autocracy.
Of course, Putin now can cite Biden’s ad-libbed remark as a blatant appeal for “regime change” in Russia — meaning: Putin’s own ouster or even elimination. Projections of how Putin might respond has yanked focus from his ongoing war crimes to the mechanics of his legitimacy. One could guess, in real-time, what would come next after the speech, and it did: Putin’s spokesman intoning it was not for Mr. Biden to decide who the Russian president should be.
Meanwhile, the media, in hot pursuit of the latest meme, is engaging in overkill of Biden as “gaffe-machine” (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), with the uproar growing ever louder and louder — all creating the impression that mere rhetoric somehow equates to, or even outweighs, actual war crimes? Mr. Biden is now the villain?
Enough! Can we not focus on what is paramount here: the war crimes — the killing of innocent civilians, including children, as they shelter or flee Ukraine, chased out of their coutnry by the true villain of this horrifying chapter of human history, Vladimir V. Putin?
The growing evidence is staggering. More than half of all the children of Ukraine — repeat: more than half of all Ukraine’s children — are now uprooted, in flight, not tucked in their beds in their Ukraine homes! Refugees fleeing Ukraine number nearly 4 million. Counting the internally displaced, fully one-quarter of Ukraine’s population of 40 million have been heaved out of their lives.
Rewind that tape of the President’s speech (full video and transcript here): Mr. Biden in his outburst clearly was expressing his heartbreak and agony, not a forthcoming policy change; his subject — the suffering of the Ukrainian people and not Putin’s ouster — was clearly implicit. Before his speech, visiting with Ukrainian refugees, this grandfather held their children in his arms.
Diplomatic gatherings are wreathed in diplo-speak — abstractions drained of pulse, emotion. Mr. Biden broke through the diplo-speak, to register, quite properly, his moral disgust at the destruction and sorrow that one person can wreak on millions of human beings. Who else at the summit pierced through the argle-bargle with this cleansing moral point?
Two days later, non-issue now approaching white heat, peppered by reporters at a White House press conference, Mr. Biden made it explicit about his off-the-cuff and from-the-heart remark in Warsaw: He was expressing, he said, his “moral outrage.” He went on: “The last thing I want to do is engage in a land war or a nuclear war with Russia. That’s not part of it. I was expressing my outrage at the behavior of this man. It’s outrageous. It’s outrageous. It’s more an aspiration than anything. He shouldn’t be in power.” He added: “People like this shouldn’t be ruling countries, but they do. But it doesn’t mean I can’t express my outrage.”
Truly said, good on him. How about more Democrats defending him? How about the media — reporters, commentators, editors assigning stories — taking a deep breath and getting perspective?
Instead today, Day Three, the banner headline in The New York Times, print edition, reads: “‘I Make No Apologies,’ Biden Says of Condemning Putin” (online headline here). Of course Mr. Biden’s clarification is newsworthy, but why not run it on page 7, rather than as a banner on page 1, with the verb “condemning” containing all kinds of triggers for Putin, while downplaying Mr. Biden’s moral sorrow?
Question: How, if war crimes are being committed, does Civilization register moral objection? We are in a terrible dilemma if the civilized world cannot dispute the barbarities of the barbarian.
In this historical moment, when strongman regimes are on the rise and democracy is on the ropes around the world, there is nothing more helpful to the strongman — nothing — than being granted impunity for the crimes he commits (as I’ve noted before), be they war crimes, violations of his own citizens’ human rights, reaching into another sovereign country to “mete justice” (that is, kill) those nationals seeking refuge there who criticize his regime, as Saudi Arabia’s strongman Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) did when he had Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed in Turkey. Mr. Biden whiffed on calling out MBS for this crime (as I also noted), but not this time with Putin. Putin is being granted impunity, not by Mr. Biden, but by media overkill.
Playwright Arthur Miller, in his primer “On Politics and the Art of Acting,” turned critic and took journalists to task for serving as “disguised theater critics,” overlooking reality to comment on mere style or incident. Dramatists, of all people, know how actions build toward a crisis and improvident actions build toward Tragedy.
What a misfortune for Ukraine, and for the world, if the “regime change” meme, manipulated by Putin out of Mr. Biden’s moral outrage, should shape this war’s course in even more destructive ways, give Putin further talking-points or traction, grant him his prized impunity — while his war crimes go on, and on, and on. That moral outrage will be fatal.
For White House transcript of Pres. Biden’s Warsaw speech, updated to include his unscripted departure, see here. For Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s column, “Biden’s Putin ad lib wasn’t a gaffe. He was right,” see here.